CLEMSON — Four years ago, Dalton Freeman stepped into a very young Clemson offensive line.
A year earlier, the Tigers had rolled out their youngest offensive line since World War II. And now, Freeman was supposed to learn from them.
The apprenticeship has worked out pretty well, it seems.
Four years later, the senior center is more like a senior citizen on the Tigers’ offensive line, the only senior and, with junior left tackle Brandon Thomas and junior right guard Tyler Shatley, one of only three upperclassman offensive linemen.
“Dalton is like the grandfather to those guys,” quipped junior quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Let’s call him an active senior.
Entering No.11 Clemson’s Saturday visit from N.C. State, Freeman has established an impressive record of longevity. He has played 3,106 career snaps, second-best in Clemson history. He needs just 26 snaps to set the program’s all-time snaps record, set last fall by right tackle Landon Walker, who finished with 3,131.
That figure, however, is nowhere near as important to Freeman as this number: 32-14.
That’s Clemson’s record since he entered the starting lineup on Oct. 17, 2009, against Wake Forest. The Tigers have won two ACC Atlantic Division titles, the program’s first ACC championship since 1991, and could tie for a third division title if they beat the Wolfpack and Florida State beats Maryland (the Seminoles would advance to the ACC title game on a tiebreaker).
That legacy, Freeman said, is worth celebrating.
“It’s something that’s very important to me, but it’s not about me,” he said of the record. “It’s about us going out and winning every Saturday. I’m just proud to be part of a culture change that’s taking place at Clemson.”
Saturday will mark Freeman’s 47th consecutive start. Assuming a Florida State victory over the struggling Terrapins (meaning no ACC title game) and barring injury, he’ll make his 49th consecutive start in the Tigers’ bowl game. Walker started 49 career games (not consecutively) which is the program record.
He credits his impressive longevity to simple preparation and maintenance.
“I think you have to take care of your body,” he said. “You get in the cold tub, it’s eating the right foods, paying the price in the weight room. (Strength and conditioning) coach (Joey) Batson does an unbelievable job of getting us ready. If you do what you’re supposed to do, do the little things the right way, I think you’ll be fine.”
Boyd says working with Freeman was slightly intimidating when he took over as the starter last season.
“I was nervous getting snaps from him when I first got the opportunity to take over,” he said. “It’s one of those deals where you’ve got to get comfortable with the guy. He had someone (Kyle Parker) taking snaps from him before, and it’s one of those deals where you’ve got to get him accustomed to you. You want that guy to be more confident in you than even the coaches, in an aspect.”
Freeman serves as the line’s quarterback, making calls at the line, getting the line adjusted and working as its unquestioned leader.
That was never more important than this spring and summer: he was the only starter returning at his 2011 position from last fall’s line.
“My first goal was to come in and teach those young guys the big picture,” Freeman said. “Teach them what we were going to accomplish on every play. Then teach them what our job was up front. Once they saw the whole picture it made a lot more sense.”
That wasn’t as easy or as prevalent as it sounds.
“I just wanted to teach them the offense,” Freeman said. “I think in past years when we were at our worst, we understood what we were doing on the offensive line but we didn’t understand the big picture offensively.”
There have been some bumps in the road, but Clemson’s line has largely thrived with Freeman’s leadership. The Tigers are in the top 12 nationally in total, scoring and passing offense, and third nationally in both red zone and third down conversions.
The line is more physical and imposing than it was a year ago, which shows up in rushing stats: Clemson is 38th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 191.8 yards per game. A year ago, the Tigers were 59th nationally, averaging 158.5 per game.
“The confidence he has in you, those other guys can see it,” Boyd said of Freeman. “That’s why it’s such a big deal when he’s in there. He knows the system so much and has so much experience, that those guys feed off him and feel very comfortable, very confident. You can see it in those expressions.”
Freeman’s last task, besides winning games? Grooming his successors. Redshirt freshman Ryan Norton has impressed in limited action at guard and center, and coaches are also high on freshman Jay Guillermo, who is redshirting this fall.
They certainly have a durable role model to learn from.
“I think that Norton and Jay Guillermo are playing behind one of the best centers I’ve ever seen,” Boyd said. “The way he competes, the way he snaps, his knowledge. I don’t think you can study behind a guy better than that.”